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A Maine sea cruise

If you straightened out all the wrinkled coves, swooping bays and ragged inlets of Maine's rocky ripsaw of a coast, you would have a seaside stretching 3,500 miles. Instead, all that grandeur is crammed into a span of roughly 250 miles, as the sea gull flies. Bobbing offshore, like granite crumbs chipped off during the glacial upheavals that shaped that crinkled coastline, are about 2,000 islands. Here lies a seagoing realm all its own, one destined to frustrate sightseeing landlubbers. For this is a water lover's world.

You just can't see the coast from the shore. It's like trying to get a glimpse of New York's skyline from Times Square.

To get the authentic Down East experience, you have to be at sea. Or on it.

"If you want to see the Maine coast, the best way to see it is from a kayak _ you're right on top of the water," says Joe Dunn, head guide for Coastal Kayaking Tours in Bar Harbor. "The vistas are startling; you just can't describe it."

From beneath the crackling sails of a windjammer crossing Penobscot Bay, the coastal views are almost equally startling, but creature comforts are more readily available. Maine is home to one of the nation's largest fleets of windjammers, including classic sailing ships that have been harbor-hopping for generations.

Seagoing tourists seeking a spot on craft powered by paddle or whisked by wind will find a raft of possibilities. Popular jumping-off ports for kayakers include Stonington and Bar Harbor, while windjamming schooners most frequently set sail from Rockland (one of Maine's busiest fishing ports) or Camden. Once at sea, most captains and guides flock toward the waters between Frenchman Bay and Penobscot Bay.

Common to both kayak and sailing-vessel vacations are free-form itineraries set by whim, tides and weather, relatively low prices (starting at about $100 a day for accommodations, activities and home-cooked meals that might include freshly foraged mussels and clams), and those startling vistas. The chance to picnic on remote islands or in secluded coves and the chance of spotting wildlife _ seals, eagles and whatnot _ are also part of the program.

Those seeking a less physically demanding vacation might opt for a windjammer trip. The sailboats, which range in length from about 60 to 120 feet, include schooners dating back as far as the 1880s and modern reproductions of those classic vessels. Some are former cargo or fishing boats.

Passengers _ smaller ships take about a score while larger boats carry about three dozen _ are invited to join in shipboard activities. Salty visitors can help raise and trim the sails, steer theship or cook in the galley. Or, they can simply retire to the deck with a book or pair of binoculars.

Accommodations are in below-deck cabins. (Kayakers camp out on the offshore islands they visit.) Below decks, space may be a bit cramped and hot water in short supply.

Food rarely disappoints, and no trip is complete without a lobster bake. At night, with the ship sheltered in a rocky cove, visitors can head for a nearby town or stay on board to watch the stars and sing along with a guitar-strumming captain.

Kayaking trips appeal primarily to the vigorous. People considering a paddle-powered trip should be limber and physically fit _ though they certainly need not be athletes.

Previous experience is not necessary. Depending on the outfitter (several companies in Maine conduct guided kayaking trips ranging in length from a half-day to five or more days), even those who have never sat in a kayak can put to sea for a few days. Trips are usually geared to the weakest paddler.

Oceangoing kayaks are quite stable. Gay Atkinson, program director at Explorers At Sea in Stonington, says she can paddle the company's 17-foot yellow Dirigo kayaks standing up.

Typically the boats are equipped with a rudder to aid navigation and with dry hatches to safely stow gear. Some even permit sails to be rigged. Dunn often tries to run a fleet of kayaks powered by spinnakers, running for miles with the wind.

Sails or no, the long, slender craft easily slice through oncoming waves, so paddling is like a gentle roller-coaster ride. Long, open-water crossings are kept to a minimum; boaters are more often close to the shelter of a spruce-fringed island.

Kayakers and windjammers alike rave about the wildlife off the coast. Dunn recalls once watching a 4-foot seal surfing on a wave right alongside him. The seal finished its ride, flapped his tail, splashed Dunn, and dived. On other occasions, Dunn has seen finback and minke whales, eagles and osprey, porpoises, and, on offshore islands, deer.

June, July and August are far and away the most popular months for boating vacations in Maine, but kayak guides and windjammer folk alike save their praise for September. Days tend toward crystal clarity, the wind is up, pleasure boats are gone, and autumn's flame is just starting to fire the trees.

Half-day to five-day guided kayak trips in the Acadia National Park region are offered by Coastal Kayaking Tours Inc., P.O. Box 405, Bar Harbor, Maine 04609; or call (800) 526-8615. Minimum age for participants is 16. Custom trips can also be arranged.

Guided kayaking trips in Jericho Bay and in the eastern reaches of the Penobscot Bay ranging from a half-day to nine days are offered by Explorers at Sea, POB 51-A, Stonington, Maine, 04681. Children as young as 10 are welcome. Custom trips can also be arranged.

For reservations or more information about the Vessels of Windjammer Wharf _ which include the 1871 coasting schooner Stephen Taber (the oldest documented sailing vessel in continual use in the United States), the 1931 schooner Timberwind, and the 83-foot motor yacht Pauline _ write the Vessels of Windjammer Wharf, Box 1050, Rockland, Maine 04841; or call (800) 999-7352.

For a complete listing of windjamming and sea-kayaking outfitters in Maine, write the Maine Publicity Bureau, 97 Winthrop St., Hallowell, Maine 04347.

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